More than 60 residents who live near Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital gathered this past Tuesday for a second neighborhood meeting about the noise and lights coming from helicopters that have been transporting patients to the hospital’s new helipad.

The hospital’s president, Ron Werft, kicked off the discussion by stating just how serious Cottage Hospital was taking the complaints and concerns. He was followed by Steve Fellows, who said that while the helipad’s first week in early February endured a staggering 13 flights, the following weeks have only experienced about five flights per week. While seven of the 28 flights to date landed between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., Fellows said that only two flights have occurred after hours since February 12.

Dr. Chris Flynn, the chief of staff at Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital, explained how each use of the helicopter pad for inter-facility transfers was critical for patient care, with 16 of the flights transporting stroke victims in need of immediate medical attention. “In all the cases they’ve accepted, those were the right decisions,” Flynn said. “The emergency department doesn’t look at this as a new toy or thrill.”

Werft explained that the stroke victim flights are a direct result of Cottage Hospital’s certification as the only stroke center in the Central Coast. “Over the last 25 years since I’ve been here, Cottage Hospital has transformed from a community hospital to a regional hospital,” explained Werft. “Twenty-five percent of patients come from outside the South Coast because we’re the only Central Coast hospital that has: fill in the blank.”

Many neighbors asked if the hospital could ask for quieter helicopters after hours, or whether it was necessary to use bright spotlights, which flood the bedrooms of many sleeping residents, when flying over the hospital since the landing pad is already equipped with lights. Lisa Abeloe, a representative of CalSTAR air ambulance service, stated that Cottage Hospital really has no control over which helicopters or air ambulance services other hospitals use when transporting patients. That was seconded by the hospital’s director of environmental safety, Susanna Shaw, who added, “We’re trying to manage and continue to manage helicopter landings, while mitigating them in terms of hospital necessity. But the types of helicopters used is outside our jurisdiction.”

Inquiries into the designated flight path used by helicopters to travel to Cottage Hospital included whether it could be adjusted for higher altitude air space to reduce noise levels. But Werft stated that Caltrans is the ultimate authority in designating flight paths for helicopters within city air space, not Cottage.

Santa Barbara attorney and resident Mark Chytilo was also present at the meeting and discussed how the environmental impact report for the new helipad failed to predict or encompass the apparent distress it has caused neighbors through its current usage. “Are you working toward getting the number of flights back to what the permit said it would be, rather than double?” Chytilo inquired. “Or is a further environmental impact report needed?”

Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and five out of six city councilmembers were also present throughout the proceedings, observing quietly the exchange between frustrated residents and reassuring hospital administrators. One neighbor asked if a new department for “hearing loss and jittery nerves” would be opened at Cottage in the future, which was met with laughter, while resident Nora Gallagher introduced near the end of the meeting the creation of a neighborhood coalition affected by helicopter noise and light.

The next neighborhood meeting will be held on May 15 at 5:30 p.m. in the Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital’s conference room. A neighborhood hotline, initiated after the previous meeting, is available for nearby residents to call with complaints, concerns, or suggestions at (805) 569-8917.


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